Future of Schools

As Nashville charter school conversion begins, administrators must overcome confusion

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Eighth-grade students graduate May 26 from Neely's Bend Middle Prep School, which eventually will become Neely's Bend Collegiate Academy.

While eighth-graders graduated last week from Neely’s Bend Middle Prep School and began transitioning to high school, students in the Nashville school’s lower grades prepared to transition to a new kind of school as well.

But the path to become Nashville’s second state-authorized charter school has been anything but smooth as Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, a traditional school operated by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, begins its four-year conversion to Neely’s Bend College Prep, operated by the LEAD Public Schools charter network.

The changeover officially begins this August and was set in motion last year when Neely’s Bend, a school for grades 5-8 in the blue-collar suburb of Madison, landed on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst-performing schools, opening the door to intervention by the state-run Achievement School District (ASD). After a period of contentious public feedback from communities at Neely’s Bend and Madison Middle, another school on the list, ASD leaders announced last December their selection of Neely’s Bend for charter conversion.

The die was cast. But confusion and miscommunication reigned this spring among school administrators, faculty, parents and even one school board member hopeful for a reversal.

In March, outgoing Neely’s Bend principal Michelle Springer told students and teachers that if they achieved a proficiency rate of 40 percent on state tests this year, the school would not be converted to a charter, and would remain with the Nashville district, according to this email distributed to faculty returning from spring break:

“Good evening! Today was a very productive first day back. Our students met with administration as a grade level to reset and refocus on 40% goal. We also shared that if we meet our goals, Neely’s Bend will remain a neighborhood school. Our teachers and students are excited about the progress that we have made.”

The email subsequently was posted on Facebook by Jill Speering, who represents Neely’s Bend on the Metro Nashville school board.

The school also sent a robo-call to parents announcing that the school might avoid charter conversion and remain with the local district. Brittney Garland, an active member of the PTA at Neely’s Bend Elementary, which feeds into the middle school, even organized a letter-writing campaign to encourage the middle school students to do their best on the pivotal tests. “We’re all just trying to band together and keep that little band of hope,” she explained at the time.

But contacted soon afterward by Chalkbeat, representatives from the Nashville district, the ASD, the Tennessee Department of Education and LEAD confirmed that Neely’s Bend would become a charter school, no matter what this spring’s test scores showed.

ASD officials said recently they were unaware of the confusion, although a Chalkbeat reporter called ASD officials in April to ask about the rumors. “If somebody had any questions about eligibility, no one reached out to the ASD, to the best of my knowledge,” ASD chief of staff Elliot Smalley said last Thursday.

Even so, during the school’s graduation week, teachers still wondered if high scores might save their school from a charter conversion. The scores will be released later this summer.

Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member and vocal critic of charter schools, noted that, even with unequivocal communication, transitioning a school to state control can be traumatic for teachers, students and their families. “I think it’s vitally important that the ASD provides clearer guidelines for that transition and communicates effectively with the school community,” she told Chalkbeat.

The confusion has laid a rocky foundation for Neely’s Bend administrators, faculty and students who will work, teach and learn in the building when school returns under their new model known as co-location.

The conversion will begin with the fifth-grade class, while grades 6-8 will continue to operate as a traditional school under the purview of Metro Nashville. A new grade will join the charter ranks each year until the entire school is operated by LEAD beginning with the 2018-19 school year.

Michelle Demps, who was tapped from nearby Madison Middle Prep to lead Neely’s Bend Middle Prep in its final years, and Shawn Jackson, the incoming principal of the charter school, say teamwork can make co-location work for both schools. They plan to partner on everything from the necessity of sharing school facilities to protocols of choice such as school discipline policy, daily schedules, and a “fun calendar” of activities to reward students. They also will share a school newsletter.

That’s a lot more overlap than occurred at LEAD’s other two Nashville conversions — Cameron College Prep, which was authorized by the local district and now operates all four middle-school grades, and Brick Church College Prep, also an ASD school, where conversion will be complete beginning next school year.

In Memphis, where the ASD has authorized 22 charter schools, co-locations have been challenging, prompting Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson to announce earlier this year that the district no longer would allow them. Hopson said co-locations are awkward for district employees who operate in the same building as charter employees but know their jobs eventually will end. He complained that teacher morale and retention is low and that services such as clerical work and professional development often are duplicated.

"We’re not thinking about who’s charter, who’s public."

Demps is attempting to tear down potentially contentious walls before they go up between the two school models. She is incorporating parts of LEAD’s structure into her traditional school, such as “crew,” a type of homeroom where students meet in single-sex groups to talk about matters ranging from academics to personal lives in order to help build relationships. She’s also assigning advisers to students, another idea borrowed from LEAD.

At the start of the school year, all students — both the fifth-graders in the charter school and older students in the traditional setting — will undergo an orientation about the common school culture. “We know you have to build a strong foundation,” Jackson said.

Working and planning together has made community outreach easier for both principals. LEAD has conducted heavy neighborhood canvassing because, while enrollment to ASD charters is mostly restricted to neighborhood residential zones, students in those zones don’t have to attend there.

Jackson recalls one woman asking what the conversion will mean for her two grandsons — one a rising fifth-grader who will attend the charter school, and the other a rising eighth-grader who will continue at the traditional public school, especially because the state has declared Neely’s Bend Middle Prep a failing school. “In that moment, I was really glad that I know what we both stand for; I know the work we’re putting into this,” Jackson said.

Demps said she’s not focusing on her traditional school inevitably being absorbed by the charter school. She tells the parents: “This is about your child. This has very little to do with the politics of education. We just want to have your child have the best education possible.”

“The reality is these are the same kids, coming from the same homes. We’re not thinking about who’s charter, who’s public,” she said. “We’re thinking about what programs and what resources will be best for the kids we serve.”

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”